Return to Transcripts main page


President Donald Ramps Up Attacks On Mail-In-Voting; White House Is In Damage Control Over Woodward Revelations; President Trump Says He Knew COVID-19 Was Deadly Before Downplaying It; Admiral Brett Giroir: "We Do Need To Test Asymptomatic People"; President Trump Tries To Defend Comments Revealed In Woodward Book. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 12:00   ET



MICHAEL MCDONALD, DIRECTOR, UNITED STATES ELECTION PROJECT: Have a plan, if you request it now it will get you in plenty of time for you to cast it return it either by mail or in person if you need to. It's really those voters who are voting right at the very end. Right near your deadline where you really need to think hard about if how you're going to vote if you wanted to participate in the election.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Michael McDonald grateful for your insights sir. We'll continue the conversation over the next eight weeks I'll promise you that. Thank you.

Hello, everybody. It's the top of the hour. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you so much for sharing your day with us. Today fallout from the devastating admissions in the president's own voice first heard right here 24 hours ago.

The president intentionally misleading you in his response to the Coronavirus acknowledging to the journalist Bob Woodward early on he understood the devastating nature of the threat yet deliberately playing it down. Those are his words telling you it was no big deal, just like the flue. It will soon disappear.

Public health experts calling this a dereliction of duty noting the president didn't just minimize the threat in his words he all but ignored it in his early actions doing little or nothing to ramp up testing or protective equipment supplies in what history will remember as a lost February. It is impossible to play down the numbers nearly 6.4 million infections, more than 190,000 American Coronavirus deaths.

Team Trump bristles at the criticism it could have, should have, done a lot more sooner. Last hour the White House Coronavirus Task Force Testing CZAR Admiral Brett Giroir asked by CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta could you have done more early on. He said, no.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Are you preparing yet for your upcoming debates? ADMIRAL BRETT GIROIR, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH, HHS: March 12th, I think it is very important for people particularly in this audience to understand--

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: --because they're sending unsolicited ballots, it is really a corrupt system and you watch.

GIROIR: I came here March 12th. I think it's very important for people particularly in this audience to understand that diagnostics were not emphasized at all. The national stockpile, not a Trump Administration, it is not an Obama Administration. It has been a longstanding practice that diagnostics were really not emphasized. I think we see the importance of them now. I have never been told to slow down testing or to reduce our efforts. In fact, we have built on testing every single month.


KING: Clearly had a glitch in the computer server there. My apologies to the president and the Admiral and to you those things mixed in together there shouldn't have been on that way. Another reminder today though the Coronavirus disruption is everywhere.

Another 884,000 people filing for first-time unemployment last week, in all more than 55 million Americans lost jobs over the past 6 months. 24 hours ago the White House was caught completely off guard now a scramble to minimize the damage. CNN White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is with us also CNN National Security Correspondent Vivian Salama.

Kaitlan, I want to start with you because look we know that the president is his own communications director. We know the president did these 18 interviews with Bob Woodward in fact gave Bob Woodward a cell phone number so his aides don't know much about that didn't know much about them.

The challenge today is to deal with this. Is to deal with this, this is the Arizona journal - Wisconsin Journal Sentiment, excuse me it is on the front page here. Another battleground state, Tampa this is Florida it is on the front page here another battleground state here. This is Arizona. It is on the front page here. So in the middle of this campaign, Kaitlan Collins, the president and his aides now trying to convince the American people it is OK that he didn't tell you the truth for weeks.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And so far they have been trying to turn the conversation entirely away from Coronavirus because they knew even before this book came out and before you could hear the president say this in his own words, voters did not like the way that the president had handled the pandemic so far.

So it was already a challenge for them. It was a challenge to message it. They saw the same polls that we are seeing nationally and in those states of the headlines that you just held up where voters do not like the way the president handled it and now it is front and center. And we've already seen Joe Biden started using it in ads to criticize President Trump, using his own words where he is saying that to Bob Woodward that he did it on purpose, that he intentionally down played it and so now that's a new challenge for them with two months to go before the election.

And the only thing that I've heard from some people in the last, you know, 24 hours since this came out is a lot of voters already made up their minds on whether or not the president handled the pandemic well? This likely won't change it and they're hoping but I think that's something that's really still to be determined on how voters do react to this and what they do think of the president's comments to Bob Woodward?

KING: And Vivian the president says on these recorded conversations, he deliberately played it down. He says he didn't want to cause a panic and he clearly was not honest with the American people. But this goes deeper than just the president.

I want to read a line from reporting that this is from your reporting back in May. This is Robert O'Brien, the president's National Security Adviser initially no one understood the magnitude of this crisis. That's the National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien.

Initially, no one understood the magnitude of this crisis. That is to you in May. Now listen right here. This is Bob Woodward talking to the president about his reporting and what he learned about that same Robert O'Brien.




TRUMP: Because it was too early.

WOODWARD: Your new National Security Adviser O'Brien said to you on January 28th, Mr. President, this is going - this virus is going to be the biggest national security threat to your presidency. Do you remember that?

TRUMP: No. No.

WOODWARD: You don't?

TRUMP: No, I don't. No, I don't. I'm sure if he said - I'm sure he said it. Nice guy.


KING: There's a bigger question about if someone told that to the president how could he say he didn't remember? But Vivian, Robert O'Brien, January 28th, this is going to be the biggest national security threat of your presidency to the President of United States. Robert O'Brien May 2nd to you, initially no one understood the magnitude of this crisis.

VIVIAN SALAMA, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right John. There's obviously a clear discrepancy between what he told myself and our colleague Kylie Atwood in our interview in May versus what he allegedly told the president in that initial briefing in January.

And one of the things that Kylie and I really pressed National Security Adviser O'Brien on in our interview at the time was why did they - why the inaction? Why did it take so long to address the problems when there was clearly a sign that the U.S. was extremely vulnerable?

Now keep in mind that briefing was on January 28th, the first case we found in the U.S. that was confirmed was about a week earlier and the cases were just building at that point. So Robert O'Brien clearly seeing through the advice of several national Security Council officials saying that obviously this is going to blow out of proportion.

But the administration actually defends its actions at the time but they look at it as an international response, that they cut travel to certain parts of China and then gradually to all of China for a while, that they limited travel to Europe and elsewhere.

They saw that as taking swift action but the bigger question, the one that Woodward addresses in his book and the one that many of us have been asking for several months John is what was being done domestically?

We knew we had cases here and the president apparently knew we heard it in his own voice that this was extremely contagious, it was airborne and people were vulnerable to it and so why did they not take swifter action to lock the country down?

We know, of course, from our reporting over the last couple of months that the economic dynamic of shutting down the country particularly in the election year was something that the president was highly reluctant to do.

A lot of his advisers were pushing against it and so you had this continued issue of public health versus the economy and having strong economic numbers going into the election. And here the president himself admits that he knew the problem, but he proceeded the way he has publicly.

KING: Kaitlan, there's a lot of stunning stuff when you read the book and when you listen to these audio conversations. The president telling one thing to Bob Woodward and then telling just the opposite really to the American people about what he knew about the threat being quite serious and devastating he calls it to Bob Woodward and to the United States, to the American people it's going to go away, it is will be gone soon. We'll be good.

But he also brazenly discusses what if true would be a top-secret national security issue with Bob Woodward? The president is charged with protecting us. Listen to this piece of a conversation about an alleged secret nuclear weapons program.


TRUMP: But I have built a - I have built a weapon system, weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven't even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody - what we have is incredible.


KING: If that's true, Kaitlan Collins, Putin and Xi know about it now.

COLLINS: They do and so do you and I and everybody else who is watching and reading and listening to this book. And that's what so notable about the excerpt that we saw of this book yesterday as Woodward writes that he actually went around to defense officials asking them about it and they expressed surprise that the president revealed to a reporter who was writing a book on him on the record that there is a new nuclear system that apparently they have built that we did not know about.

And now of course the president was not just saying it to an adviser or to a friend or to Melania Trump or someone who wouldn't reveal it. He was saying it to a reporter who he knew was writing a book on him. And the president revealed this to him seemingly as you can hear it there you know without hesitation.

And so I just think that's so notable that there is so much in this book on Coronavirus that this is kind of gotten buried in it. But it is incredibly significant that the president revealed something this sensitive that even these defense officials were surprised he revealed it to a reporter, but he had no problem telling it to Bob Woodward.

And that really goes to show you just how much aides had no idea what it was the president had told Woodward. You heard the vice president say this morning he saw Bob Woodward at the White House once. He had no idea that the president had spoken to him 18 times because a lot of it was during phone calls when he wasn't in the Oval Office with communication aides surrounding him.


COLLINS: And it really just goes to show that the president was just dialing Bob Woodward up telling him all of this information and now you are trying to see the president is saying things like I only gave him some quotes clearly John, he gave him a lot of quotes.

KING: He gave him quite a bit and we still only know some of it not all of it. Kaitlan Collins and Vivian Salama I appreciate it very much. When we come back the latest on the Coronavirus trends here and Admiral Giroir the administration's testing CZAR tries to clear up the confusion about whether you should get tested if you're asymptomatic?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Because of the new Bob Woodward book, a lot of conversations about what the president knew and when back in the early days of the Coronavirus and what little he did about it back in the early days?

But let's take a look now at where we are in the here and now. This is our 50 state trend map as we look through it. Eight states, that's the orange, there is no red today that is good, eight states trending up that's not so good, reporting more new cases now than a week ago so eight states in the wrong direction.


KING: 18 states, that's the beige, holding steady, that includes Arizona there, one of the big drivers of the summer surge. 24 states trending down including Florida, Texas and California with Arizona those four were the big drivers of the summer surge in cases. They are trending in the right direction at the moment 24 states trending down.

Let's take a closer look at the cases. You just go back and remember, we climbed up in March, we came down a bit by Memorial Day then the giant summer surge now we're starting to dip back down. The question is how much are we coming down?

Sometimes the data out of a holiday weekend can be a little - it tends to lag a little bit. We got a couple of days drop below 30,000 yesterday back up to 34,000 new infections reported. We have to see this, watch this play out for the rest of this week and into next.

Are we getting down below 40,000? Are we coming back up? We'll watch the baseline as it goes. Also a troubling day yesterday when it comes to the new deaths reported in the United States. 1,200 yesterday, is that a blip? Let's hope so, let's hope that's just a one-day blip because you see that trend line was starting to come down for this long stretch July and August averaging 1,000 new Coronavirus deaths a day in the United States.

It had started to drop down and let's hope it stays down and that was just a one day aberration in the numbers. We'll watch it. Look at the time line here of the climb to 6 million infections in the United States and then to go back just to think about this back in the early days, January 28th, just really started to get cases in the United State. You don't see any gold yet.

This National Security Adviser says this is the biggest national security threat in our history, that's in the Woodward book. February 7th Trump tells Woodward the virus is deadly stuff. Remember, tells him this before there are any notable cases in the United States.

He knows before this happens, the president knows this is deadly stuff. No ramping up of PPE, no other steps like that. The president says I don't want to create a panic that's why he says he deliberately played it down to the American people.

This is what happened in the weeks and months after that. You look at where we are now. The five states with the highest positivity rate, the Dakotas, North and South here, Iowa, Kansas and Alabama in double digits. 21 percent in North Dakota, you want to get the positivity rate on your test to 5 percent or below to push it down.

What states are doing the best right now? They're all up here. The states that dealt with this early on, New England and New York, the northeast part of the state, remember how horrible it was there in March and April? They now have the lowest positivity rate up there.

Here's one reason some public health officials are worried. When we show you now the average of new infections the reports of new Coronavirus infections, some public health experts worry we're missing some because testing is down. We were up around 800,000 a day. Yesterday it was 584,000 it is down here and yet listens to the administration's Testing CZAR Admiral Giroir in a conversation earlier today with CNN's Sanjay Gupta.

He says number one if you're asymptomatic, never mind the CDC guidelines, we actually do want you to get tested and he insists the testing regimen in the United States right now is getting better.


GIROIR: We do need to test asymptomatic people. There is no doubt about that. We create the future utopia and what I want to do is create as many tests as possible. There will be a day where there will be at-home tests that are widely available in the hundreds of millions that are cheap that we can test as frequently as we want. We are not there right now, right? So we have to use the test that we have in a strategic manner.


KING: Joining us now is Dr. Rochelle Walensky she is the Chief of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, also a CNN Medical Analyst. Doctor, it is good to see you today. When you listen to Admiral Giroir, let's focus on the first part first.

The CDC guidelines, if you can go to the website right now, they still essentially discourage, my words, not a medical tem, discourage asymptomatic people saying it is not necessary for you to get tested. The Admiral says, yes, we want asymptomatic people to be tested. A, what's the right policy? And B, why can't left hand and right hand get it together?

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CHIEF OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL: Good afternoon John. That's a great question. Yes, I suggest that people who are asymptomatic, certainly asymptomatic contacts get tested. And in fact, I think part of the challenge has been the miscommunication we are getting from leadership and the CDC.

We are hearing if we look at the CDC website as you say it does not strongly encourage asymptomatic contacts to be tested. I believe those people do need to be tested and they need to be tested at the right time around four to five days after contact.

They also for example don't suggest that people arriving at colleges be tested. So we're incorporating now people into congregate settings, people into residential settings in colleges where they very much have the opportunity to spread disease. We have seen it all over the country and the CDC guidelines haven't changed on that since June 30th.

KING: We're at below 600,000 tests yesterday 584,000 tests yesterday. We thought we had 800,000. We got there. And a lot of people said that wasn't enough now we're coming back down. Should we be worried about that? Are we testing enough?


DR. WALENSKY: We are absolutely not testing enough. So I would say we need diagnostic tests. These are tests for people who have symptoms who are arriving in the hospitals and urgent care centers who are feeling unwell.

And then we need a whole category of other tests, surveillance tests. We need to be using surveillance tests the way the NBA is using surveillance tests. We need to be using them as the Admiral said, frequently, point of care at home easily and this is going to be one of the major tools I think that will help us get through and out of this pandemic.

KING: So through the seven months of this, people turn to people they trust, experts like you. So let me ask you this question in the context of a new Kaiser poll, how worried are you? The FDA will rush to approve a vaccine due to political pressure?

One third of Americans say they are very worried. Another 29 percent say they're somewhat worried. 16 percent say they're not too worried. 20 percent say not at all worried. That's 60 percent of Americans who say they're very or somewhat worried, should they be?

DR. WALENSKY: I don't think the FDA, the CDC and leadership here has done us a service by rushing things like convalescent plasma, changing these CDC guidelines on testing to empower us to have trust in them.

What I do have trust in is the science, the Data Safety Monitoring Boards, the National Institutes of Health, the experts who are going to tell us through that science and through those data whether we are ready to see a vaccine come forward?

So I will be looking at the scientists, I will be looking at the data and then I will secondarily be looking at what the FDA says after interrupting that science and data.

KING: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, as always grateful for your time and your insights. Thank you so much.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you for having me.

KING: When we come back the president says he deliberately played down the pandemic because he did not want to cause a panic. Is that the right choice for a leader when the pandemic is deadly?



KING: Good and proper. That today is the president's take on his answers to Bob Woodward. In a democracy everyone gets a vote so you can decide whether it is good and proper for your president to deliberately tell you for example that the Coronavirus is just like the flu. And to keep telling you that for weeks after he has been told it is far more deadly and more devastating than any flu.

We have for four plus years now wrestled with the Trump and the truth questions. It is sad fact but fact nonetheless that he speaks mistruths constantly. In this case, in deliberately not telling the truth about the risk of COVID-19, the president insists he was doing us all a favor.


TRUMP: I want to show calmness I'm the leader of the country. I can't be jumping up and down and scaring people. I don't want to scare people.


KING: Joining me now to discuss is the Former New Jersey Governor and Former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and CNN Presidential Historian Doug Brinkley. Governor Whitman, I want to start with you first and you just heard the president I can't be jump - I don't want the people to be jumping up and down. I want to keep people calm. I have to be a leader.

Let's listen to part of his explanation to Bob Woodward where he says, yes, he plays it down and he plays it down repeatedly as a strategy.


TRUMP: Now it's turning out it is not just old people, Bob, just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out, it is not just older--

WOODWARD: Yes, exactly.

TRUMP: There are plenty of young people. Well, I think Bob, really to be honest with you--

WOODWARD: Sure. I want you to be.

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.


TRUMP: Because I don't want to create a panic.


KING: Governor Whitman, it is admirable for any leader to not want to create a panic among his/her citizens, however, you also have to be honest with them, don't you not? Don't you create Coronavirus infections and perhaps Coronavirus deaths if you don't tell the truth about what's coming?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: Absolutely. He is responsible for many of these deaths. He is responsible for the fact that our economy is tanking. He is responsible for the dislocation in schools and the fear of children and all the empty spaces at around dining room tables and all the loss that we have come through.

Because you don't as a leader if you tell the American people the truth, tell them what you know, why it's important to take these steps that we know to be the important ones, to help deal with this, they're not going to panic. You don't have to jump and down that's not how you deliver this kind of message?

You do it in a reasoned way that says what we know, what we don't know, what are the absolute basic things that need to be done and you don't down play it. That was irresponsible in the extreme. Frankly, he's not a leader. He's not a leader. That's what we needed in this time and of course there's more in the book than just the Coronavirus that should make us very worried.

KING: Well, and to the point that's why I wanted to have you both here for this conversation because there's a broader dishonesty in governance that just a trademark sadly of the Trump Presidency.

But Doug, listen here in the sense that again a lot the conversation early on as we're going through this is wow, the president doesn't understand the science. Wow, the president isn't listening to the scientists. But now if you listen to the Woodward tapes actually he was listening but he just wasn't telling us. Listen to this exchange.


TRUMP: It goes through air, bob. That's always tougher than the touch. The touch you don't have to touch things. But the air, you just breathe the air and that's how it's passed.